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Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview Four – Jenn Ashworth

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Jenn Asworths debute novel A Kind Of Intimacy

Jenn Asworth's debute novel A Kind Of Intimacy

Author Jenn Ashworth is the fourth writer to be interviewed by The Scribbler about being included in Waterstones’ New Voices 2009.

Her debut novel, A Kind Of Intimacy, caught the attention of the Waterstones’ critics last year and with good reason. It is a story that traces the dark possibilities of best intentions going awry. It’s not a comfortable read but then these are the kind of books that get us the most excited. It gives an unsettling glimpse into a clumsy young woman’s life who’s actions would almost certainly label her as a monster if she didn’t have so much in common with the rest of us.

Got your interest? Read the full interview with the talented Jenn Ashworth below then leave a comment in the discussion box. Enjoy!

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The Scribbler: What does it mean to you to be recognised as a New Voice of 2009 by Waterstones?

Jenn Ashworth: It’s very exciting. It’s especially flattering because this is a promotion that involves front-line booksellers reading, reviewing and choosing the promoted books – not publishers paying for them. As a debut novelist with a smaller publisher, that’s levelled a playing field I might not otherwise have had a turn on.

TS: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

JA: I think that’s something you’d have to ask my readers. Most have remarked on the uncomfortable mix of comedy and near-tragedy in my writing – not only this novel, but also in the short stories that I publish online. As far as I know, A Kind of Intimacy is the first novel to have ever given the sea-side town of Fleetwood, Lancashire to the world, either. I’d love to be corrected if I’m wrong.

TS: As a New Voice of 2009 you must be inspired by some very contemporary authors. Which writers do you enjoy reading and draw inspiration from?

JA: I’ve just finished reading Ray Robinson’s first novel – Electricity, which I really enjoyed. I also have a lot of respect for my friend Chris Killen, who’s novel The Bird Room was published recently. I think he and I come from very different places as writers, and yet both have a dark sense of humour that comes across in our work. Generally though, my inspiration doesn’t come from books, it comes from people.

TS: Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

JA: In the past when I’ve been asked this I’ve said something faintly sarcastic about the ideas tree in the bottom of my garden. My polite answer would be something to do with wanting to explore certain themes and issues that are important to me on an emotional level I’m not really able to verbalise. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I knew I wanted to write about feeling odd and lonely and not quite involved with the world before I started seeing a woman who looked a bit like Annie on the bus in to work in the morning. I worked in a library and when an American self help book called The Surrendered Wife appeared on my trolley, other ideas started to appear. Hard work and seven drafts over two and a half years brought it all together.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

JA: I first began writing when I was ten or twelve, and didn’t have any idea about finding a publisher back then. The process of signing with Arcadia was the usual one – handled by my agent who submitted the manuscript on my behalf to a few editors he thought would appreciate Annie’s strange character. I did an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester University, and although the camaraderie and the feedback certainly helped me stay motivated and to consider myself as a writer, I wouldn’t say that I made magical contacts there that helped with the search. I’ve since heard that Annie terrified one of the editors at Arcadia, which makes me smile.

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

JA: The biggest obstacle is my own laziness and cloudy thinking. I’d love to be ten times cleverer than I really am. I can feel what I want to say, but can’t catch hold of it sometimes. That’s terrible. I make lists though, and I have a black board to write down words that come to me in the night, and I don’t have a television and try not to go out or socialise too much so I don’t get distracted. The Internet is a big distraction. The instant gratification of online publishing is becoming a barrier to the slow progress of writing a novel. I might need to get rid of it. The internet, not the novel.

TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.) How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it?

Jenn Ashworth

Jenn Ashworth

JA: I like the novel – I’m not ashamed of it. I didn’t read it while it was being submitted because I was working on something else, and now the only time I look at it is when I’m asked to do readings. I’m just finished with that one now, and onto something that’s got more of my attention. I suppose I’ve moved on, although I can still see what I saw in her at the time!

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?

JA: I have started it, and I expect to be finished fairly soon. I think. I hope. It took a year and a couple of false starts and lots of experiments with short stories before I felt ready to write another novel. I needed to read a lot, and rest. Fill up the tank again, maybe. It is going well now, although finding the time is a constant struggle. And so often, when I have the time the inclination is absent. I feel bad complaining though. I’m well aware it isn’t a proper job, because I’ve got one of those too.

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?

JA: Andrew Motion told me to just write down what happens. I was asking him about some tortuous, self inflicted, silly problem I was having with tense, or point of view, or the Russian doll effect you get when you try to take into account the narrator’s circumstances while they are narrating. Whinging about it, I think, and he very politely told me to just write down what happens. I took it to mean that sometimes you can be too clever, and that it helps to forget most of what you learned during your undergrad degree.

TS: In your opinion what is A Kind of Intimacy about?

JA: I think its about trying to start again and, perhaps through no fault of your own, not quite being able to manage it.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?

JA: None of them in particular. I wrote more than I read when I was younger. It’s only since I started making sure that it is the other way round that my writing got any better.

TS: What is your learning background? And do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

JA: Well, I have an English degree which I don’t think helped too much – although I do love being able to read as well as I can, and the very rigorous and old fashioned way I was taught is, I think, responsible for that and suited me very well. The Creative Writing MA was an experience I wont forget or regret, but I’m still not exactly sure what kind of effect it has had on my writing. As I’m writing this second novel I am half missing the regular support of my classmates, and half glad that I’m writing without stablisers now.

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Discussion
Promote or rant about Jenn Ashworth or any of your favourite new writers for 2009 and expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.

Words: Dean Samways

Waterstone’s New Voices 2009 – Interview Three – Amanda Smyth

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Amanda Smyths debute novel Black Rock

Amanda Smyth's debute novel Black Rock

Amanda Smyth has been included on the Waterstone’s ones to watch list 2009, after her debut novel Black Rock was well received by critics. The Independent book reviewer Lesly McDowell labelled Smyth’s story as “a powerful, authentic one” describing the protaginest Celia as “an appealing, earthy, yet spiritual heroine who grows, wounded and embattled, through the course of the book.”

Amanda’s has sited her own Trinidadian roots as being a big influence on her, and after completing an MA in creative writing at UEA in 2000, her short stories were published in New Writing and London magazine as well as being broadcast on radio 4 as part of a series called Love and Loss. After having a number of short stories published Amanda Smyth received an Arts Council Grant for her first novel Black Rock.

Taking time to talk to The Scribbler Amanda discuses becoming published, where she gets her ideas from and what struggles she faced with her debut Novel Black Rock.

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The Scribbler: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

Amanda Smyth: Gosh, that’s not a question for me to answer, I think. There’s a great deal of wonderful international writing out there. Perhaps the only thing I might have to offer that’s a little different is the location. My novel is set in Trinidad.

TS: As a ‘New Voice of 2009’ you must be inspired by some very contemporary authors. Which writers do you enjoy reading and draw inspiration from?

AS: I really enjoy reading Jhumpa Lahiri, Jamaica Kincaid, Richard Ford

TS: Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

AS: Black Rock was originally inspired by a true story that came from my childhood. My great grandfather was murdered in Trinidad in 1950s, and I began Black Rock with the idea of writing about this event. I strayed very faraway (!) but that was the first seed of thought.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

AS: Initially I wrote short stories, and after graduating from Creative Writing MA at UEA, I was lucky enough to quickly find an agent, and there was some interest in a collection. Twice I came close to getting the stories published as a whole, but then the possibilities fell through. It was tough. I was advised to get on and write a novel. At the time, I was very in to Jean Rhys, and I remember reading a quote about novel writing from her letters: “All you have to do is start it, get on with it, and finish it.” So this is kind of what I did! And yes, it wasn’t easy finding the right publisher, but it did all come together in the end.

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

AS: I think we all have blind spots, in one way or another. Learning to take criticism from people who know more than me was a big thing. There were moments when I’d feel defensive around feedback. But I think I really learned how to *hear* it, and learn from it and move on. That was so important – in order to get better.

TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.) How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it?

AS: Yes, I think so. I know when I’ve tried to take a short cut, and there’s just no point in it. Why kid yourself.

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?

AS: I have something stewing… And yes, I think it can be difficult, especially if you’re still involved in the current book with readings etc.

Amanda Smyth

Amanda Smyth

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?

AS: Always assume your reader is much brighter than you are.

TS: In your opinion what is Black Rock about?

AS: It’s a coming of age story.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?

AS: In my early days of writing, I think I wrote things down as a way of trying to understand them.

TS: What is your learning background?, and do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

AS: I wanted to act when I was young, and did bits of TV, commercials, theatre work, so I didn’t bother going to university. As long as I had an equity card I could get work. But then I met a writing teacher/poet/journalist in Trinidad while I was living there. I went to his workshops every week and learned as much as I could. He changed my life. Then I came back to UK and applied to UEA to do the MA in Creative Writing. I found some of the academic work challenging, but the creative writing workshops were terrific.

TS :What does it mean to you to be named as one of the New Voices of 2009 by Waterstones?

AS: This was just wonderful, especially when I saw the other selected novels. And last year’s list was terrific, too. It’s a great honour.

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Discussion:
Promote or rant about Amanda Smyth or any of your favourite new writers for 2009 and expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.

Words: Seamus Swords

Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview Two – Yiyun Li

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The Vagrants By Yiyun Li

The Vagrants By Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li has made it onto the Waterstones’ ones to watch list 2009 after the release of her well received novel The Vagrants.

Moving to the United States in 1996 she had work published in the New Yorker as well as winning awards and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the Whiting Foundation.

Her first collection of works, Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction.

Her most recent novel The Vagrants follows a small group in a small town during the 1970s when China was going through a social and political revolution towards a more open and free society.

In the middle of all this hype and excitement Yiyun Li took some time out to chat to The Scribbler. Read the interview below.

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THE SCRIBBLER: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

YIYUN LI: I don’t think that is a question I can answer.

TS: As a ‘New Voice of 2009’ you must be inspired by some very contemporary authors. Which writers do you enjoy reading and draw inspiration from?

YL: Of the contemporary authors, I feel greatly indebted to William Trevor, whose novels and stories I read for inspiration.

TS: Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

YL: I look for situations in life (from newspapers and from conversations with people) that fascinate or baffle me, and I then go on to make up characters to explore the situations.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

YL: I suppose I had my share of rejection letters from literary magazines, though I was fortunate enough to have a story published in The New Yorker early in my career, which helped when I signed up with the publisher.

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

YL: I write in a second language, so I am always aware that language will remain a challenge. I keep reading and writing, which seems the only way to deal with the challenge, if not to overcome it.

TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.)

Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li

YL: How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it? After I finish my work I don’t think about it anymore. I am comfortable for my work to be read by the world, as by the time my words are in print I am distant enough from them.

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?

YL: I have started to work on my next book, a collection of stories. I don’t find it hard to leave a piece behind. In fact, it is always a joy to leave the old behind and start something new.

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?

YL: James Alan McPherson, who was my mentor when I began to write, rarely discussed the crafts of writing when I met him, but every time we met he would say to me, “Keep writing.” An I do believe that is the best advice given to me, and I would pass it on to young writers.

TS: In your opinion what is The Vagrants about?

YL: I don’t think I’d talk about a novel that way, not my books or other authors’ books.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and star writing?

YL: Many of William Trevor’s stories and novels inspired me to start writing. So has Graham Greene’s work.

TS: What is your learning background, and do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

YL: I had a science background – I was trained to become an immunologist when I gave up that career to become a writer.

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Click on the clip to see a trailer for the film adaptation of Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers

Discussion:
Discuss, promote or rant about Yiyun Li or any of your favourite new writers for 2009, and expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.

Words: Seamus Swords

Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview One – Janice Y. K. Lee

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Janice Y.K Lees debute novel

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee has written her first novel to much acclaim, after making it onto the Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 The Scribbler has managed to secure a quick Q&A with the writer.

This interview is the first in a series in which we hope to talk to all the nominated writers competing for the Waterstones award.

Impressing many publications from the intellectual New Yorker to fashion magazine Vogue, Janice Y. K. Lee has managed to impress some of the harshest critiques with The Piano Teacher, a tale of love, passion and survival in 1940s and 50s Hong Kong.

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THE SCRIBBLER: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

JANICE Y. K. LEE: I think that people like to be transported in a novel, and 40s and 50s Hong Kong is sufficiently far away from most peoples’ worlds that they feel as if they are travelling and learning a little bit.  The Piano Teacher has been described as an historical epic and an epic love story and I think both of those appeals to readers.

TS: As a New Voice of 2009 you must be inspired by some very contemporary authors. Which writers do you enjoy reading and draw inspiration from?

JYKL: I do read mostly contemporary writers, partly because I want to support writers working now and also because it is the closest to my heart.  I think Shirley Hazzard and Michael Ondaatje are amazing.  Also Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides.  I could go on and on.

TS:  Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

JYKL: I don’t know that I “lift” them as much as they come floating up to the conscious part of my head.  I’ll be thinking about many things, and some will keep coming back, or be resonating for a reason I cannot figure out.  I was interested in a long time by people who steal, people who one would never think would do such a thing.  This found its way into short stories, characters I would write about, and eventually found its way into the book.  TPT started as a short story about an English piano teacher and her young Chinese student.  From there, the characters really led me to their story.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

JYKL: I have an unusual story, which will probably not be that helpful, unfortunately.  My teacher from grad school, Chang rae Lee, introduced me to my agent, and she took me on the basis of my short stories but she really encouraged me to write a novel.  It took me a while, but after 5 years, I had my novel.  She was always very encouraging of it and because I took so long to make sure it was right, it was in good shape by the time I finished it.  From there, she sent it out and there were a lot of interested parties and it ended up going to auction.  I had a lot of rejection during my 20s with my short stories, but luckily, with this novel, it was a fairy tale sort of story.

Janice Y.K Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

JYKL: I think writing a first novel, in particular, is difficult as you are writing in obscurity, you are likely not making any money, and people often don’t know what to make of you.  All I can say is that you just have to believe in yourself, and in your book, and keep on.

TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.) How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it?

JYKL: I haven’t read the book through since it came out.  I don’t know when I’ll do that.  I do flip through sometimes, and read a passage, and usually I will like it.  I suppose that’s pretty good!

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?

JYKL: Writing a second book is awfully difficult as well!  I feel there is a certain expectation as to the kind of the book I will write, and I’m trying hard to let that feeling go and write what I want to write.  I think I have successfully left TPT behind but it’s just trying to get to that new place right now.

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?

JYKL: Treat writing like a job.  It is a job and you have to work very hard at it.  It is not always some romantic life of late nights and wine and talking about one’s process (that may come afterwards! or before!).  You have to sit at that desk and write.

TS: In your opinion what is The Piano Teacher about?

JYKL: I think it’s about Claire (the book’s piano teacher), but I’ve been argued down to the ground about that.  Others think it is about consequences of actions made under duress, east meets west, wartime.  But I’ll stick to my guns and say it’s about Claire’s journey as a person.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?

JYKL: Any of the books written by the writers I mentioned above will move me and make me want to write.  They have a way of surprising readers, using words differently, illuminating character, that make one pause and savour the language.  

TS: What is your learning background? And do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

JYKL: I went to university and studied English and American Literature which was certainly helpful.  I did an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing which was helpful insofar as it gave me time to write in a community of people who were doing the same thing.

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Click on the below clip to hear an except from The Piano Teacher:

Discussion:
Please take this chance to discuss, promote or rant about Janice Y.K Lee or any of your favourite new writers for 2009, and expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.

Words: Seamus Swords